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You’ve probably known about computers your whole life. But computers have not really been around for very long. Computers started to become popular with big companies in the 1960s. Computers didn’t become widespread in homes and schools until the 1980s.


 People use computers in many ways. Stores use computers to keep track of products and check you out at the cash register. Banks use computers to send money all over the world.

Computers help teachers keep track of lessons and grades. They help students do research and learn. Computers let you hook up to networks (many computers hooked together). They let you hook up to a worldwide network called the Internet.

Scientists use computers to solve research problems. Engineers use computers to make cars, trucks, and airplanes. Architects use computers to design houses and other buildings. The police use computers to track down criminals. The military uses computers to make and read coded messages.

 Computers are not just desktops and laptops. Computers are everywhere around your home. There are tiny computers inside microwave ovens, television sets, and videocassette recorders (VCRs) or digital video disc (DVD) players. There are even tiny computers in cars to help them run better.


 Computers need hardware and software in order to work. Your desktop or laptop and all the parts inside are called hardware. The central processing unit (CPU) makes the computer work. The keyboard, mouse, printer, and monitor are also pieces of computer hardware.

 Memory chips are hardware that stores information and instructions. Information also gets stored on the hard disk drive.

 The programs that run the computer are called software. The computer operating system is software that tells the computer how to run. Applications or programs are software that do certain tasks. Word-processing programs, for example, let you write school reports and letters.


One reason that computers can do so much is that they have a special language that tells them what to do. Computer language has only two letters: zeros and ones. Computers can read these ones and zeros extremely quickly.

 Each zero or one is called a bit. Eight zeros and ones together are called a byte. Bits and bytes get stored in computer memory chips. Every year, computer engineers make chips that can hold more bytes. The chips can hold more information. Programmers can write applications that can do more things.


 As computers have become more powerful and widespread, operating systems have become extremely complex. Few people can use a computer without one. Scientists at AT&T developed an operating system called UNIX in 1969. UNIX and related operating systems such as Linux are popular at universities and among computer professionals. In 1975, Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen wrote a program for the Altair 8800 and founded the Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft later developed the DOS and Windows operating systems used on many home and office PCs.

 Computers keep getting smaller and more powerful. Personal computers that fit on a desktop today are more powerful than early “supercomputers” that filled entire rooms. Cell phones and watches contain tiny computers that can store information such as telephone numbers, addresses, and appointments. These devices allow you to surf the Web and play games. Many computer experts think that computers have only begun to make their mark on history.